Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.
– Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld
We’ll get to the epigraphs above, but first: I’m a fan of the BFI Film Classics series, and more generally of the form itself – a short monograph on a canonised film. In a span of an afternoon, one gets closer to an artwork that previously seemed ineffable. In the hands of a good critic and good writer (and I mean writer in all its noblest connotations), those aspects of a movie that seemed so ethereal, so paradoxically tangible but also just out of reach, those aspects that one is absolutely certain of but utterly unable to bring to consciousness, are crystallised into language (and in our very finest writers a language that produces the same ethereal intoxication that the text itself is discussing, James Agee quickly comes to mind, Gilbert Adair as well), thereby facilitating the aesthetic experience in a way, that for me, justifies the existence of criticism itself. I guess what I’m saying is that I love good criticism, and I often find it in the BFI Film Classics Series.
This is a high bar. But good-old-fashioned formal analysis in a language that is clear, self-effacing, and informed – without the awkward syntax or wilful opacity that often seems to mimic the prose style of translated continental theory in a transparent attempt to signify legitimacy to the reader – still makes for great reading, and is what Peter Krämer accomplishes in his recently published study of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Krämer’s monograph begins with a short introduction, politically and culturally contextualising the film, proceeds with a chronological scene-by-scene analysis (the bulk of the book), and concludes with a brief discussion on the meaning and consequences of Dr. Strangelove’s Nazi past. Krämer’s analysis is a historically situated formalism. As he writes, “My analysis of the story, themes, and style of Dr. Strangelove tries to adopt the perspective of an American cinemagoer seeing the film for the first time in 1964.” (p. 15) This historicism is at times implicitly forgotten during Krämer’s analysis, an inevitable consequence of writing long after both the film’s release and the end of the Cold War. Strict adherence to such historicism is, however, not only impossible (how can anyone write of the past without the knowingness that is inseparable from hindsight), but also undesirable. Regardless, Krämer’s study astutely explicates the formal and thematic tools wielded by Kubrick, enhancing any viewer’s relationship with the movie. Ultimately, facilitating the aesthetic experience is one of the loftiest functions of criticism.
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Kubrick began research for a movie about a Cold War confrontation in the late 1950s, went into production on Dr. Strangelove in 1963, and released the movie in January 1964. This time-period included the 1961 Berlin crisis and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, two events that “were widely perceived to have brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.” (p. 8) The basis of nuclear strategy at the time was deterrence – that is, the assumption that the enemy’s knowledge that any attack would result in massive nuclear retaliation and assured total annihilation would discourage any such attack in the first place – a strategy that came to be known as Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD (an acronym that seems more appropriate for Kubrick’s film than the history books). Although only a few hundred nuclear bombs could destroy a nation, in 1963 the US had 29,000 and the USSR 4,200 bombs that could be delivered by planes and missiles into enemy territories.
Despite these conditions, Kubrick felt that humanity was wilfully denying the very real possibility of nuclear destruction. Kubrick wrote, “We are pacified […] by full stomachs, TV, and comfortable homes but we have become ‘walking dead’. We’ve given up as individuals. We deny the threat and subconsciously experience our anxieties elsewhere.” (p. 10) Kubrick, therefore, wanted to confront humanity with the reality of its situation, and in doing so change minds and attitudes towards the political situation they had so dangerously thrown themselves in. He wrote:
There is no technical solution […] Disarmament, even without cheating, but unaccompanied by a profound moral change of attitudes in men and nations, could easily lead to sudden rearmament and war – you can’t take away the knowledge. The only defence is the mind of man, and I don’t think he has even begun to face the problem. (p.12)
It is ambitious art that draws my attention, and few artistic ambitions are greater than attempting to change collective consciousness.
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Dr. Strangelove follows the attempts by the president, and his military advisors (most prominently George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson), to prevent nuclear holocaust by stopping an American nuclear bomber (commanded by Major Kong played by Slim Pickens) that has been ordered to attack the Soviet Union by a rogue, psychotic American general (General Jack D. Ripper played by Sterling Hayden). It famously has Peter Sellers in three separate unforgettable roles: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake who attempts to get the recall code that would call down the attack from General Ripper; the president; and Dr. Strangelove, the president’s nuclear advisor, and who, despite the eponymous role, does not appear until well into the movie. (1)
From the opening sequence – shots of a tanker plane transferring fuel to a bomber plane – one of the major themes running throughout Dr. Strangelove is established: male sexuality is comically and lewdly equated with the capability of mass destruction. As the tanker approaches the bomber for fuelling, Krämer writes, “It is not much of a stretch to discern an erection […] ‘that great phallus sticking it to all of us’, in the words of one of Kubrick’s correspondents.” (p. 22) The sequence sets, and is consistent with, the overall mood of the film – a combination of satire and self-reflective horror.
The association between male sexuality and violence is, of course, not exclusive to Dr. Strangelove in Kubrick’s oeuvre. It runs, in various degrees, through many of his movies, most notably A Clockwork Orange (1970), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The difference in Dr. Strangelove is that we’re invited to both laugh at, and feel horrified about, that association – laughter and repulsion being an essential combination of satire.
Krämer points out that much of the film is “realist,” inviting the audience to immerse itself in the fictive space of a serious drama, but layered on this are always the devices (lines of dialogue, phallic props, character names, etc.) that allow the audience to have a simultaneously humorous response to that drama. Examples of such devices abound, and one can read almost any scene, or any shot even, of the film as a tension and balance between these two elements. Indeed, one could argue that this is the key to almost all effective satire – a balance between the real and the humorous. The (nuclear) situation can only be effectively ridiculed – possibly leading to a change in the audience – if the humour, exaggeration, and irony are foregrounded by a convincing realism.
Tensions and conflicts are clearly drawn throughout the film, including the scenes in which Mandrake (Sellers) nervously interacts with a clearly psychotic Ripper (Hayden). The film sets the tension of Hayden = masculinity = violence = American military hawkishness against Sellers = effeteness = pacifism = Englishness. And because Ripper is bat-shit crazy, with all his talk of communist infiltration into his bodily fluids, we are invited to see that all four nouns in that equation are crazy.
Such equations do not seem so removed from our own times, despite the natural inclination to look back at our past with the implicit superiority of hindsight that accompanies a progressive view of history and humanity. But in our current political and cultural climate, do we not see representations of tolerance, mutual understanding, thoughtfulness and reasonability as weakness, disloyalty, and even treachery? One need watch only a few minutes of a certain American cable television news station to see reasonable judgment and diplomacy being portrayed as weakness – an effete inability to stomach the realities and inevitabilities of war – that endangers us all. Ripper and Mandrake may exist in the context of the Cold War, but they are representations of discourses that unfortunately continue to be with us.
General Ripper is obviously bat-shit crazy. The film’s achievement is that we are ultimately convinced that General Turgidson, who at first appears quirky but reasonable, is also crazy. His logic on the need for an all-out attack is ostensibly worthy. He tells the president that there is nothing they can do to recall the bomber and therefore they must start an all-out nuclear war to reduce the retaliatory capability of the Soviets. In fact, he is quite proud of himself that he has offered a solution to the president that only results in the death of ten to twenty million people. Before we can be seduced by this logic – a logic that is not so dissimilar from contemporary right-wing hawks, nor is exclusive to any one nation, and which accepts war as inevitable and therefore concludes that the only reasonable step is pre-emptive violence – the president rejects the general’s premise of inevitability and says, “there are still alternatives open to us.” The camera brilliantly moves away from Turgidson and the shot is composed with the shoulders of two people sitting in the front row of the circular table framing the president’s face. It is as if the camera is now placed behind the proceedings to some unknown person watching the action. In short, the president – or perhaps even Kubrick, through the character of the president – is addressing us. The president describes Turgidson’s plan as “mass murder, not war,” and firmly states, “I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hilter,” linking any nuclear strategy which is indifferent to, and perhaps even relishes in, mass murder to Nazism, a link that is solidified with the Dr. Strangelove character.
The president is the voice of reason, continuing to exhaust any possible option that would avoid nuclear holocaust. This is in conflict with the major military figures, who to varying degrees are all pushing towards nuclear war. This includes the bomber commander Major Kong who shows all sorts of ingenuity in his attempt to drop the bomb, his Texan accent and cowboy hat redolent of that real-life post-Cold War Texan president. That real-life administration, however, had no need for such hawkish military advisors and a new tension between reason and hawkishness emerged. Now, it was the politicians that needed to convince the public and the global community of the imperative for and inevitability of war, inventing a threat of another kind of weapon of mass destruction. Is the underlying assumption between that administration and General Turgidson not the same – the inevitability of war?
Even the logic of deterrence – which the film suggests will be humanity’s ruin, since it’s the Soviet doomsday machine that will automatically trigger nuclear holocaust if Major Kong accomplishes his mission, and was built in order to deter any such attack – is still with us. Solutions to the epidemic of gun violence from parts of the political right include increasingly arming public places (a gun in every classroom) in order to prevent that very same gun violence: a kind of domestic arms race.
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As the film continues towards its climax, Krämer points out, we are not only put in the president’s war room, but also in Major Kong’s plane and have been engaged in his struggles and victories to complete his mission. In this way, we are invited both to wish for the world to be saved and to be seduced into rooting for Kong. This reminds me of Hitchcock, the supreme master of using point of view to seduce the audience in entirely unexpected and uncomfortable ways. The classic example, of course, is the post-murder scene in Psycho, where we watch Norman Bates meticulously clean up the murder scene and carefully dispose of the body, seducing us into identifying with him, because, as Krämer writes regarding our seduction in Major Kong’s plane, “the completion of the task feels more important than the consequences of completing it.” (p. 84)
Major Kong, as we all know, accomplishes his mission, riding the bomb (the most powerful phallus in the movie finally giving rise to the ultimate orgasmic explosion) like a cowboy on a rodeo horse as he drops to his death, yelling in excitement and waving his hat in the air. The war room accepts defeat and begins discussing their plans for a post-apocalyptic world in underground mineshafts, leaving Dr. Strangelove unable any longer to suppress his Nazism, saluting the president with raised arm and calling out “Mein Fuhrer.” This culminates in the ultimate sexual manifestation of mass military violence. Dr. Strangelove, confined to a wheelchair up to now, works himself into such frenzy and excitement over the expectation of humanity’s demise that he miraculously stands erect from his wheelchair and yells, “Mein Fuhrer, I can walk!” – the ultimate phallus of the movie, the erect body of Strangelove himself.
This cuts to the film’s final scene, shots of nuclear bombs exploding, complete with mushroom clouds, while Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again”. As Krämer points out, “Obviously, there are many contrasts between the song and the images as well as the story that it concludes.” (p. 94) And for me, it is this very contrast – this contradiction between the beauty of the images and what they represent – where the question of who exactly is this “I” who learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, is finally answered. It is the narrator – the camera itself – who has finally stopped worrying and beholds the images delicately, tenderly, lovingly. The duality and the anxiety that the camera, and we, have struggled with (rooting for Kong but hoping the president and Mandrake will save the world) are assuaged in the final scene. The camera has stopped worrying, has stopped resisting, and now loves. The “explosion” has happened and we must accept the post-apocalyptic, meaning post-coital, world. It is the camera that is the “I” in the title, and in this case that “I”, with all due respect to Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, is most certainly, and very horribly, male.
Peter Krämer, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (London: Palgrave/BFI Film Classics, 2015).
1. In a very unusual case of life imitating art, does not Dr. Strangelove resemble, in appearance and speech, a certain Cold War advisor to Richard Nixon, who wouldn’t take office until several years after the movie? Even his name – Dr. Kissinger – would have sounded satirically appropriate for the movie.